Monstrous Millinery

E.S. Turner

  • British Military Spectacle: From the Napoleonic Wars through the Crimea by Scott Hughes Myerly
    Harvard, 336 pp, £23.50, December 1996, ISBN 0 674 08249 4

To be shot from one’s horse in battle was something of an honour, but to be blown from the saddle in a gust of wind at a review was not. This misfortune befell the Duke of Wellington in Hyde Park on a May day in 1829. Much of the blame lay with his Guards bearskin cap, nearly two feet high, which he was wearing instead of his usual cocked hat. ‘Oh, what a falling off was there!’ exclaimed the caricaturist Paul Pry, showing the Duke in his white trousers alighting on horse dung. But the diarist Creevey says the top-heavy hero was ‘immensely cheered’ by thousands. After all, lusty young troopers were sometimes unhorsed in this fashion.

It was an age of military dandyism like no other. Was there, then, a case for cracking down on the monstrous millinery of war? Was towering headgear really necessary to overawe the enemy? How many British casualties on campaign were caused by the fopperies of uniform? Why were monarchs, and colonels of regiments, so insistent on a tight fit when, in an emergency, an officer could hardly pull on his rain-shrunk trousers or wield his sword in a rain-shrunk jacket? Or was there more to the curve of a plume and the traditional spacing of buttons than a layman could ever know, a symbolism and a mystique that built and sustained esprit de corps, an imagery that imbued not only the wearer but the beholder with pride and patriotism? Questions like these sprout from Scott Hughes Myerly’s earnest foray into military aesthetics. There have been innumerable books about army uniforms and traditions, but Myerly, an American cultural and military historian, is concerned also with the impact on society of military spectacle and of those martial virtues and excellences which he describes, not once but many times, as the military paradigm.

The author calls Byron in aid. ‘What makes a regiment of soldiers a more noble object of view than the same mass of mob? Their arms, their dress, their banners and their art and artificial symmetry of their position and movements.’ It hardly needed Byron to tell us that. ‘Terrible as an army with banners,’ runs the biblical phrase, but nothing is more terrible, in the looser sense of the word, than an unchoreographed army of dissenters with banners all awry, spitting stale mantras as they go. ‘Cadenced marching’ does much to dignify even the dingiest cause (this book is commended on the jacket by the author of a book called Keeping Time in History). Myerly fails to mention the goose-step, which in Hanoverian times reached British parade-grounds as the ‘balance step’ and was much execrated by those required to perform it. In spite of its latter-day associations, the sight of hundreds of beefy automatons, identical in aspect, advancing through a conquered capital in this bizarre masochistic mode exacts a reluctant admiration, inspired simply by that clockwork perfection, that artificial symmetry. The message for the spectator has been summarised as: ‘If we can do this we can march through a brick wall.’ Our own grand military spectacles, in the years covered here, succeeded in blending might, precision and elegance with a dash of entertainment and the necessary touch of ‘Don’t mess with us.’ Its rich pageantry was well calculated to draw susceptible youth to the Colours, along with those with ‘too much wife’ and too much form. For the enemy it was surely a privilege to be spitted by such fine-plumed lancers, or to be deprived of a limb or two by such exquisitely frogged hussars.

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